Hopper: The Supreme American Realist of the 20th-Century

Mystery. Longing. A whole new way of seeing. A stunning retrospective reminds us why the enigmatic American artist retains his power

Nighthawks, 1942. (The Art Institute of Chicago / Friends of American Art Collection / Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
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By the end of the 1930s, Hopper had changed his working methods. More and more, instead of painting outside, he stayed in his studio and relied on synthesizing remembered images. He pieced together Cape Cod Evening (1939) from sketches and recollected impressions of the Truro vicinity—a nearby grove of locust trees, the doorway of a house miles away, figures done from imagination, dry grass growing outside his studio. In the painting, a man and woman seem separated by their own introspection. Hopper's "equivocal human figures engaged in uncertain relationships mark his paintings as modern" as strongly as his gas pumps and telephone poles, writes art historian Ellen E. Roberts in the current show's catalog.

The notions of disconnection and inaccessiblity are most fully realized in Nighthawks (1942), Hopper's most famous painting. Like the Mona Lisa or Whistler's Mother or American Gothic, it has taken on a life of its own in popular culture, with its film-noir sensibility sparking scores of parodies. The figures, customers at a late-night eatery, flooded by an eerie greenish light, look like specimens preserved in a jar. Hopper has banished every superfluous detail: the huge plate-glass window is seamless, and there is no visible entrance to the restaurant. Like characters in a crime movie or existential novel, the figures seem trapped in a world that offers no escape.

As Hopper aged, he found it increasingly difficult to work, and as his output decreased in the late 1940s, some critics labeled him as passé. But younger artists knew better. Richard Diebenkorn, Ed Ruscha, George Segal, Roy Lichtenstein and Eric Fischl appropriated Hopper's world and made it their own. Eight decades after his most evocative canvases were painted, those silent spaces and uneasy encounters still touch us where we are most vulnerable. Edward Hopper, matchless at capturing the play of light, continues to cast a very long shadow.

Avis Berman is the author of Edward Hopper's New York and the editor of My Love Affair with Modern Art: Behind the Scenes with a Legendary Curator by Katharine Kuh (2006).


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